Twenty years ago, on August 31, 1997, Princess Diana died in a tragic crash in Paris in a car with her boyfriend while her husband and two children waited for her in London. Five days later, Mother Teresa of Calcutta died due to complications that apparently developed after a decades-long battle with heart disease that worsened with her contracting malaria the year prior. Over the next three months Princess Diana graced the covers of the major news magazines Newsweek and others at least nine times. The world grieved. Her story led the evening news every night and her funeral was broadcast live to millions. Sir Elton John even re-wrote a song for her.
Meanwhile, Mother Teresa barely warranted mention in the news tsunami that left her swamped behind the flash and glitz of the princess. This said more about our cultural values than Mother Teresa ever could have said herself.
But this week that changed. Suddenly, Mother Teresa is newsworthy … the lead story no less … cover material. This week Mother Teresa has even supplanted the backwash tsunami of the ten-year remembrance of Diana’s death. But it is not the ten-year remembrance of Mother Teresa that the press has found so marketable. It is not even a belated appreciation for her 60 years of work with the poor and dying in India.
No, what is so tantalizingly important about her now is that she had a “crisis of faith” that has recently been revealed in letters which she had specifically requested not be made public, but rather destroyed. (Funny how the press’s commitment to its sources’ privacy changes from time to time — especially when they can scoop a story like this one). The hook, you see, is that Mother Teresa, a world-renown icon of religious commitment, sometimes questioned her faith. Time magazine reports that …
… one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared.
That, to a secular press hell-bent on de-legitimizing faith or anyone who claims to have it, is too juicy to not be shouted from the rooftops. Mother Teresa has become a target for their secular wrath. And that is the only reason they have any interest in her now. In her crying out to God, militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens see nothing but an opportunity to exploit. Hitchens despises a:
… Church [that] should have had the elementary decency to let the earth lie lightly on this troubled and miserable lady, and not to invoke her long anguish to recruit the credulous to a blind faith in which she herself had long ceased to believe.
But just what was Mother Teresa’s “crisis”? At various points in her life, she questioned the existence of God because He seemed hidden and unreachable amid the squalor and misery of life that engulfed her. God’s hiddenness was painful to her, her longing for Him palpable:
For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear—the tongue moves but does not speak … Such deep longing for God—and … repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal.—[The saving of] Souls holds no attraction—Heaven means nothing … What do I labor for? If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true.
How is it that someone as smart as Christopher Hitchens; someone who claims his vast intellectual superiority will not allow him to accept the mindlessness of faith; someone whose presuppositions preclude any possibility that his own anti-theism may be wrong; someone who blithely rejects all possible evidence for the existence of God without consideration — someone, in other words, who blindly accepts his own atheism — How is it that someone like him can fault someone like Mother Teresa for succumbing to the false deception of a “blind faith” when he reads those words?
Read her words again and listen … Are these the thoughtless ruminations of someone who accepts her faith unquestioningly? How could anyone read those words and not see the intellectual wrestling match that is going on within Teresa’s tortured head? Call it doubtful, or despairing. But please don’t call her faith “blind.” The fact is that Mother Teresa, like any legitimately thoughtful seeker, struggled to see God in the misery of a fallen world — yet committed herself to demonstrating His presence to others anyway. And she did so while still being honest enough to ask herself the toughest questions of all.
Can any of the so-called “new atheists” claim such an honest pursuit of the truth for themselves?
Finally, those who are so quick to disparage both Mother Teresa and her religion on the basis of her questioning faith should know that Mother Teresa is not alone. Other fairly famous believers have shared the same sentiments:
- How long, O LORD, will I call for help, and You will not hear? Why do You make me see iniquity, and cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; strife exists and contention arises … Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?
- Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? For sighing comes to me instead of food; my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.
- My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
- “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”— “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The first is Habakkuk. The second is Job. The third is David. The fourth is Jesus himself, speaking in agony from the cross in his human nature with the only words he could muster, in a call for his hearers to remember David’s similar cry.
I don’t make a habit of quoting the Bible here but in this case I will make an exception. I do so because this last quote of Jesus is a line commonly used to question not only his commitment to “the cause,” but His very divinity itself. Though his physical condition would only allow him to speak the first lines of this passage, those who knew and understood the Scripture to which he was referring would have instantaneously recognized that the rest of the Psalm 22 to which Jesus alludes is not only prophetic in its description of His actual circumstances on the cross, but ends in a radically different light:
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.
4 In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.
7All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
8“He trusts in the LORD;
let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you
even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast upon you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions tearing their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.
15My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.
17 I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me.
18They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing.
19 But you, O LORD, be not far off;
O my Strength, come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver my life from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
22 I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the congregation I will praise you.
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
25From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.
26The poor will eat and be satisfied;
they who seek the LORD will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
27All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the LORD
and he rules over the nations.
29All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31They will proclaim his righteousness
to a people yet unborn—
for he has done it.
The tone is completely different from the one we are led to believe Jesus held. These are not the words or thoughts of a skeptic. They are the clearly confident claims of a victor who holds to an overall eternal view of a temporarily hidden God.
But that despair, it must be remembered, is self-inflicted. The hiddenness and separation in the relationship between God and humanity did not begin with God. We hid from Him first.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:7-8)
Our cries for God to reveal himself to us — to stop hiding from us — are the common lament that defines the human condition. From the most skeptical unbeliever to the most honored of the saints, those cries bind us together in the search to recapture meaning from an otherwise meaningless existence. From the labs of modern scientific laboratories, to the editors’ desks of the “new atheists”; from the Hollywood rehab clinics and the overcrowded jail cells, to the filth of the ghettos of Calcutta, the cry is always the same — and the answer to the cry is never far away and never hidden from our sight:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”